(Illustrations: Hope McConnell)
(Illustrations: Hope McConnell)

PartnersAugust 11, 2022

This is how we reduce deaths and serious injury on our roads by 40%

(Illustrations: Hope McConnell)
(Illustrations: Hope McConnell)

Too many people die on New Zealand’s roads. This is the plan to change that.

On average, one person is killed and seven are seriously injured every day on New Zealand roads.

We’ve come to accept that as the price we’re apparently willing to pay for the right to move around the country via our road network. In 2021 New Zealand’s road toll was 320. But those numbers aren’t just statistics. They’re our friends and whānau. Our loved ones. 

Vision Zero asks us to imagine a transport system where no one is killed or seriously injured. The first part of that journey is Road to Zero, a ten year strategy with a target to reduce deaths and serious injury by 40% by 2030. Road to Zero outlines how we can improve and make significant steps toward a safe forgiving transport system that puts people’s safety at the centre of it. This can be achieved by improving our roads and streets so that they are safe for everyone – including the setting of safe speed limits, improving the safety performance of our cars, trucks and motorbikes, improving the safety of people who are driving for work, and supporting road users to make good choices and are following the rules. 

The Spinoff spoke to Waka Kotahi Road to Zero portfolio manager Tara MacMillan and Fabian Marsh, senior manager road safety at Waka Kotahi about how we do this.

(Illustration: Hope McConnell)

How does the Road to Zero strategy represent a shifting in philosophy? 

Historically road safety has focused on blaming the individual as the cause of the problem. Road to Zero is about changing the way we think about road safety. It’s about shifting the focus to a holistic picture of an unforgiving transport system. It’s about recognising that humans make mistakes and there will always be crashes on our roads but that the current consequences of those mistakes and crashes are not acceptable.

“Around 70% of serious crashes involve someone making a mistake. We have to protect ourselves from mistakes. Fundamentally what we are trying to design is a system that when things go wrong people are protected from exposure to forces that exceed the tolerance of human bodies,” says MacMillian.  

“Road to Zero is New Zealand’s strategy that identifies the really key improvements we need to make across the system to achieve a 40% reduction in serious injury and death by 2030. It’s the critical stuff we need to do across the system to put us on a path to Vision Zero,” she says. 

“If we do nothing, people will continue to die and have lifelong injuries that families and friends need to support.”

(Illustration: Hope McConnell)

If mistakes are the main cause of death on our roads, is there a way to reduce them? 

“We are human and we do make mistakes. The best we can hope for is alert and compliant drivers. People have personal accountability and a responsibility for reducing the amount of mistakes they make on the road. We know how to be good drivers. We have to do this all the time.” 

They’re familiar messages, but worth repeating. Don’t drink or do drugs and drive, don’t drive fatigued, don’t use your phone while driving and don’t speed – all things that lead to higher risk of death. And wear your seatbelt. 

“Roughly one third of people who died in crashes last year weren’t wearing a seatbelt. This is still – in this day and age – one of the simplest things to keep us safe. More than 90% of people wear seatbelts. But those that don’t are overrepresented in fatal crashes. This goes to highlight the more people wear their seatbelts the safer you’ll be.”  

Police are there to deter those high risk behaviours.

“The reason for policing is people need an incentive to change behaviour. Education alone will not change behaviour. What we do know and research is very strong on a combo of education and enforcement is what’s required to actually elicit a change in behaviour. You need both of those working together,” says Marsh.  

What role do our vehicles play in protecting us? 

Compared to other developed countries New Zealand has an ageing and lower safety standard fleet. Cars with one- and two-star safety ratings make up 38% of vehicles in Aotearoa but contribute to 66% of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

“Our call to action is to ask people to consider the safety rating and buy the safest car they can,” says Marsh. 

The Right Car website provides the latest safety ratings of New Zealand’s fleet – an essential tool that is updated with new data. 

“A car might have been safe in its day, but the crash statistics are updated annually. So we encourage people to go back in and check. It’s not mandatory for sales places to display safety ratings – so be proactive.”

But there’s only so much your car can do to save you from the impact of a crash. 

“While vehicles are becoming safer there are still limits to the amount of force a vehicle can protect us from. Even in the five star cars at high speed the forces are so extreme that the cars can’t protect us. And therefore we still need to work on other parts of the system to provide that next level of protection,” says Marsh.

(Illustration: Hope McConnell)

What does creating a safe system mean? 

The Road to Zero strategy is about improving the safety of all parts of the system so that if one part fails, other parts will still protect the people involved. Rather than seeing the loss of human life as a toll we must pay, any time someone is killed or seriously injured on the road is seen as a system failure which was preventable.

If 70% of serious crashes are due to people making a mistake, a safe system is about preventing those simple mistakes from turning into tragedies. 

“Knowing people are going to make mistakes, and they’re driving around in cars that aren’t guaranteed to protect them at higher speeds, we need to design the road network in two ways”, says Marsh. 

That starts with two key initiatives:

“One that separates the conflict and prevents the crash from happening in the first place. Secondly, where that isn’t possible, reducing speeds to survivable limits.” 

How do we make roads safer?

Infrastructure changes are essential at reducing the intensity of the outcome of those human errors. 

Last year 70% of deaths were on rural roads, and 50% of deaths on state highways were a result of head-on crashes. If you are able to separate those vehicles, you reduce death and serious injury. 

“In a high speed environment we look to infrastructure to reduce the crash severity, that’s median barriers and the side barriers,” says MacMillian.  

Infrastructure treatments at intersections that reduce crash severity include roundabouts. “What roundabouts do is lower the impact speed and change the angle of impact. Or we use treatments like raised safety platforms that help slow traffic down.” 

Why don’t we make those infrastructure improvements across the entire network instead of reducing speeds?

We would if we could, says MacMillian. 

“Putting infrastructure on our roads can be challenging. We’ve got a whole lot of narrow and windy roads due to our topography and to put in some of this infrastructure we need to look at widening and that’s often not an option. We’re up against it. Infrastructure is hard, it is costly and it takes time. 

Safe speeds are our most cost-effective tool against death and serious injury on the road. 

“If we were to lower mean speed across the whole network by 10% we would reduce death and serious crashes by around 30%,” says Marsh.  

The human body is not designed to be put through the forces of a car crash. In a head-on collision at 70km/h the risk of death for vehicle occupants is around 10%. This risk increases exponentially as speed increases. The chances of surviving an impact at 100km/h are very small.

“Fundamentally road safety is about speed and the speed at which people collide when things go wrong. There are limits to how much our body can withstand so we need to design a system to within those limits.”

Keep going!